Book review: Wake by Elizabeth Knox

wake elizabeth knoxAnd swiftly on the back of reading Wake by Anna Hope, I decided to confuse the issue by reading another book called Wake, this time by Elizabeth Knox.

I read Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck years ago and loved it so was pretty confident going in to Wake. However, now I have finished it that confidence has been shaken. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it but rather it wrong footed me. The opening chapter is horrifically graphic, and it really unsettled me to the extent that I don’t think I really relaxed for the rest of the novel in case another violent episode was described.

The plot is part closed-room mystery, part dystopia (but set in modern day New Zealand), and has a whiff of Lord of the Flies. A community suddenly goes mad and starts killing each other and themselves. A handful of survivors gather together, trying to understand what has happened and why it didn’t affect them but are unable to contact the outside world to find out how far the madness has spread. The survivors are (mainly) appealing and well-drawn, not cookie cutters, their dilemmas well expressed and prompted me to think about how I would react to such a situation. The only jarring element was the Samantha/Samara sub plot which felt unnecessarily complicated.

In summary, I appreciated the cleverness of the this novel but I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Book review: Wake by Anna Hope

Wake Anna HopeSet in post-WWI England, many people want to forget what has gone before and yet, for many, this is not possible. Parents have lost their sons, wives their husbands, siblings their brothers. For those who have come back, even if they are lucky enough to be ‘whole’ physically, mentally they are suffering; survivors’ guilt, nervous shock from the horrors they have seen, nightmares, the list is endless.

However, Wake doesn’t focus on these lost or broken men but rather on their women – a sister, a mother and a lover. Each of them are struggling to adjust to the loss they have suffered, and the change in their circumstances that the end of war has brought, such as a loss of freedom, a change in job, a change in social status. Their three stories represent the three definitions of the word ‘wake’: 1) emerge or cause to emerge form sleep; 2) ritual for the dead; 3) consequence or aftermath. As the novel progresses their stories skirt each other, then intertwine as each of the women search for answers. While describing the women’s lives over five days in November 1920, Hope movingly describes the country’s preparations for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which underpins this story. Day five is the day the soldier is interred in his final resting place and the day all three women find an answer to the questions that have been haunting them.

This is probably one of the most accomplished debut novels I have ever read and I can’t wait to read The Ballroom.

 

 

Book review: The long way to a small angry planet

the long way to a small angry planetAlthough I enjoy science fiction, I am more of a dystopia girl than space opera. But I had read a couple of good reviews of the long way to a small angry planet and thought I would give it a go. And I have to say I LOVED it!

Not only has Becky Chambers created a brilliantly realised world with engaging characters and an interesting storyline, she has also managed to tackle the ‘big questions’ head on including racism, gender stererotyping and the ethics of bio-engineering, without being heavy-handed. It really made me think and I felt quite bereft when I finished the novel – I missed the characters!

I hope there’s a sequel…

 

 

Want a pet? Go to a shelter, not a shop

I recently read about a social media campaign in the US to encourage people to adopt from animal shelters rather than buy from pet shops as apparently some people think that animals from shelters are ‘damaged’. Of course this is not very often the case. Yes abused animals (if they are lucky) are rescued and end up in shelters but the majority of animals are handed over to shelters because they have become an inconvenience or their owner’s circumstances have changed – maybe the owner can’t afford to keep them anymore or they have become too ill to look after the pet or perhaps they are relocating and can’t take the pet with them, etc.

So I thought I would share our pet adoption story. We got our cat, Baron Von Tibblesworth (Tibbles for short), from an RSPCA shelter in Melbourne back in July 2005 and he has brought us nothing but joy (well, some irritation too – he is a cat after all!) since we adopted him. He has entertained us, provided comfort to us when we are feeling tired or sick, and cuddled with us for almost 11 years now. He has travelled with us every time we have moved (we have relocated internationally three times, see a previous post) and he took all of these moves in his stride (he is very pragmatic, even by cat standards). As long as he has his cat bed, his food and access to a sunny spot he is absolutely fine! We have never regretted adopting Tibbles and we see him as one of the family.

So if you are thinking of getting a pet, do your research and make sure you include a visit to your local shelter. Visit the RSPCA UK or RSPCA Australia websites for details.

 

All Aboard! Part Two

Astrain ticket image promised, here is the next exciting installment of my ‘how to be a better train passenger’.

Last time I talked about the basic actions that should be undertaken by all to ensure a smooth seating procedure. This time I am going to talk about behaviour, specifically what NOT to do on a train. Disclaimer: all but one of the following have happened to me…

Don’t have super loud conversations
An oldie, but a goodie. Let’s get this straight. No-one, except the person on the other end of the ‘phone, is interested in Aunty Mabel’s gallstone operation, the deal you nailed, the boy who may (or may not) be that into you or the general minutae of your life. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Keep it down, or even better, go out into the corridor. And god help you if you are in a quiet carriage with me and you attempt any of the above.

Don’t paint your nails
I love a painted nail as much as the next woman, but nail varnish stinks! Particularly in confined spaces. Have some consideration for your fellow passengers’ olfactory comfort.

Don’t bring your avian pets
It may be legal (although I do query that) but it is weird and it is extremely disconcerting to the person sitting opposite you. Placing a squawking budgie in a cage on the table and then checking it obsessively every five minutes because “…it seems a bit upset” is very disruptive to fellow passengers.

Don’t jam all your bags under the table
The racks are there for a reason; to enable you to quickly and effectively store and access your belongings whenever you want, while keeping people space clear. If you can’t lift it up there (although you all seem very able-bodied to me) then I can help you. Jamming your bags under either means that your legs and feet have to be in my personal space or your bags are in MY personal space. Neither are acceptable. Oh, and the corridor is not a luggage storage area. Large bags go in the very convenient luggage rack at either end of the carriage.

Don’t vomit
Or at the very least, don’t vomit at someone’s feet and ruin their brand new laptop bag. If you get on a train feeling unwell, make sure you take yourself off to the loo when nausea strikes.

Don’t talk to me
Sorry, but my headphones are in my ears and I am tapping away on my laptop for a reason. And that is not to have a chat with you. I am working. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to exchange the time of day with you, agree to look after your stuff while you go to the loo and I will even help you identify your seat number or kick out the person squatting in your reserved seat (see my previous post: All Aboard! Part One) but I am not going to chat with you for the entire journey.

I appreciate that the above makes me sound like a moaning minnie; on the whole, I really don’t mind my three-hour train treks up and down the country and I really am a very positive person, but if even one person reads the above and changes their behaviour for the better we will all be happier travellers as a result.

Next time on All Aboard!: The pros and cons of cheap tickets and where to buy them

 

Music and memories: Book review of ‘The Chimes’

The Chimes, Anna SmaillAn unusual dystopian novel, The Chimes is a story of a populace without memories.

Music underpins the lives of the populace of an alternative London; it guides them (tunes act as auditory maps so they can find their way around), it identifies them (everyone has their ‘own’ tune) and it defines their role (additional snatches of melody added to their tune that broadcast their activity). But most of all, it controls them. The chimes of the title ring out from the Carillon several times a day, essentially wiping any memories made and reinforcing the ‘Onestory’ which is all anyone knows.

But there are those that can and do remember snatches of the real story, the whole story not just the Onestory. They are hidden, on the fringes, and they want to give people their memories back.

This novel is saturated with musical nomenclature, an alternate version of musical terms. A strong knowledge of musical terms would help the reader get the most of out this novel, but even without that, it is an engaging read and one that really made me think about the importance of memories and how they form not just our back stories but how they can drive our current attitudes, our behaviour, and our future plans.

 

Magical storytelling: Iain Pear’s Arcadia

Arcadia_Iain_PearsOkay, so the title of this post probably gives away what I think of this novel! I have enjoyed all of Iain Pears’ previous novels and Arcadia can now be added to this number.

It is a difficult novel to categorise so I am not really going to try. The Guardian called it a “fantastical extravaganza” and The Independent claimed that it was a “near-perfect take on the perils of a parallel universe”.

Pears effortlessly intertwines three interlocking worlds and ten characters to create a wonderfully engaging story that celebrates the magic of storytelling. With a spot of time travel thrown in. And an homage (not a pastiche as it is a gentle portrayal not a mean one) to the kind of pastoral idyll found in certain fairy tales. I always find when I read Pears’ novels that I just ‘sink in’ to the writing, it envelopes me and I find myself raising my head dazed having read straight for three hours. And Arcadia was no different.

arcadia appHowever, it is a complex read, so complex that the author developed an app to accompany the book to help the reader keep track of the characters’ as they move between worlds and influence each others’ lives. I decided to forego the app for the first read, but now I am going to go back and follow each character’s story in turn (therefore reading the novel ‘out of sequence’) so I can appreciate even more the cleverness of this novel.

I hope I have’t put off prospective readers talking about the complexity of the plotting; Arcadia is a great read!

All aboard! Part One

train ticket imageI travel very regularly on the Cross Country train that runs between Oxford and Manchester Piccadilly. As I always pre-book my ticket (using thetrainline app which is brilliant!) and reserve my aisle seat at a table (I need to work on the train) you would think that I would find this trip an easy one but I do not. Because apparently there are very few members of the travelling public who know how to get on a train and find their seat with minimal disruption to themselves or others. And it drives me mad and I rant every week on Facebook to my friends, who are so amused by my rants that they have told me to write a blog post. So here it is, my advice for train travellers:

Set yourself up for success!
If you have a seat reserved, get on at the correct end of the carriage; there are very helpful signs at the entrance to either end of the carriage which tells you the seat numbering starting at that entrance. Don’t get on the ‘Seats 1-41’ end when your seat is number 53. You will cause chaos and mayhem as you force your way against the flow and hold people up.

1,5,3,6, 4…
Speaking of seat numbering, yes, I agree the seat numbering is confusing.  The seat numbering runs consecutively, it just zig zags back and forth from one side of the carriage to the other. Seat 51 is not particularly close to seat 53. Get over it.

A is for apple, not for aisle
I don’t know how many times that I have had someone insist that I am sitting in their seat because I am in the aisle seat because their seat number is 52A which must be the aisle seat as ‘a’ means ‘aisle’. Even though seat 51 is clearly labelled as the aisle seat. So I have to show them my seat reservation for ’51A’ and have the conversation for the umpteenth time that yes, it’s strange that ‘A’ doesn’t mean ‘aisle’.

Use your eyes
Reserved seats are clearly labeled by fancy little digital screens. They update from station to station as sometimes reservations are for only part of the journey; the display flags this accordingly e.g. ‘Reserved from Wolverhampton’ will be displayed at Manchester if the seat is not reserved until that station. Feel free to sit in that seat until Wolverhampton. But be prepared to move when the rightful ‘owner’ gets on at Wolverhampton. Available seats have the phrase ‘available’ displayed.  It’s that simple.

Sit in your reserved seat. PLEASE!
I don’t know how many times I have had argue the point with someone sitting in my seat that it isn’t my problem that someone is sitting in their reserved seat which is why they are in mine. Get out of my seat.

Excuses, excuses
Along with ‘but someone is in my seat’ I am also offered ‘Oh, but I wanted to sit with my friend, just go and sit in my seat’ [while vaguely gesturing at a non-table seat somewhere  behind them]. Or ‘I didn’t see the reserved sign’ (which apparently means my reservation doesn’t count). Or they are just arses and refuse to move.

Be mindful
I get on the same train back each week, for part of the journey it is a major commuter line. It is a VERY busy train with lots and lots of people getting on. Which is why I fail to understand why people think it is appropriate to block the carriage aisle for up to two minutes when they get on the train to take off their coat, take six items (one at a time) out of their bag, rearrange numerous bags, etc, etc. Get on, throw your bag(s) on rack or under seat, sit down and then, everyone is on and the train is moving, get up to sort yourself out at your leisure.

So there you go. In my next installment, what not to do while on a train…

Book review: I Let You Go, Clare Mackintosh

I-Let-You-Go-cover-imageI think this may be the shortest book review ever – read this book! I can’t tell you why you should read I Let You Go as the main reason I would give you is the plot.

And the moment I start talking about the plot, I will inadvertently hint at one of the most startling twists I have read ever in a ‘psychological thriller’ (as this book is tagged a la Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train – both excellent by the way, if you haven’t read them) and it would be a real shame if you knew anything about this book before you started, bar what is written on the back cover blurb.

So what CAN I tell you? The main character Jenna is engaging, fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. The main plot twist comes halfway through the book which is a clever use of the ‘big reveal’. I had to read all of Part One again before moving onto Part Two to see where I could have gone so wrong.  It is an excellent portrayal of the reality of police work, the grinding police fact and statement checking that has to go on week after week to get to the truth. And that is all I am willing to tell you about I Let You Go. That and you should flex your hands regularly while reading, as you will be gripping the book pretty tightly by the end!

I will finish this post with a public health warning: Please don’t read this in public if you tend to get emotionally involved when reading a book (I don’t think my fellow tram passengers have ever recovered from the sight of me sobbing loudly when I reached the end of The Time Traveller’s Wife). When reading I Let You Go on the train yesterday, I actually exclaimed out loud and threw the book away from me when I reached the halfway point and stared at it accusingly for about ten minutes, while shaking my head and muttering to myself before I picked it back up again. So I apologise to my fellow travellers on the cross country 17:37 from Oxford for my histrionics but once you read this book you will understand and forgive me my actions…

 

 

Book review: Look Who’s Back

I recently joined a new book club (see my previous post about relocating and using meetup.com to meet people!) and talking about books in a group again has inspired me to blog reviews once more. I have been a bit slack recently as although I have been reading lots I haven’t been blogging. So here goes, first book review for a while. It was a good discussion about a bad book; I read it and really didn’t like it so attended the group in some trepidation in case everyone else loved it but luckily the majority had similar views to me. Bit of a relief considering it was my first meeting!

Look Whos BackLook Who’s Back
Timur Vermes
Warning, this review contains spoilers. This book apparently caused a stir in Germany when it was first published as its main character is Adolf Hitler, the person who is ‘back’ which is obviously a controversial choice. The premise is that Hitler wakes up on a patch of ground in Berlin in the Summer of 2011. To him it was only yesterday that he was in his bunker, so he is rather surprised by the modern world of 2011, not least the fact that Germany apparently lost WWII. However, through dint of his ‘personality’ and single mindedness he ends up managing to make media contacts, get a tv contract, navigate the pitfalls of modern technology before becoming a media star by the end of the book.

The opening chapter is relatively engaging but as far as I am concerned it goes downhill from there. The novel is meant to be a satire on the cult of personality, a witty riposte to the modern obsession with the latest celebrity ‘on trend’ who spouts nonsense but I just didn’t feel it when reading the novel. I didn’t find it witty, funny or satirical. The situations are contrived, the media consultants cardboard cut-outs and ‘Hitlerisms’ jammed into conversations. The novel is told from Hitler’s point of view, which gets wearing really quickly as the author takes every opportunity to use this narrative device to tell us what he thinks Hitler would think of the Internet, smartphones, etc. One of the only successful pieces of writing in the book is the ‘transcript’ of one of Hitler’s speeches to the media crew. It is typeset in free verse and is just phrases strung together, ‘inspirational’, all high emotion and fine-sounding but no real depth which, to me, accurately reflected what eyewitnesses have reported they felt when they listened to Hitler speak.

And, the cherry on top for me is the editing of this novel. Having a background in publishing, I found the constant typos a distraction. I also found the novel just didn’t seem to flow; it’s difficult to judge whether that’s the authors’ fault or the translator’s. However, kudos to the designer, it is a very striking cover.

Would I recommend this? No. But if you read Look Who’s Back in the original German, please let me know what you think of it. Maybe I missed something in the translation…